After Orlando: Let us be gentle and let us be bold.

I'm not sure what to say this week, after the horrendous attack on LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL early last Sunday. So much has already been said, by people from around the world. Most of what I've read has been helpful. I've been selective. Much that has been spread across the media and on the web has been hurtful and inflammatory. I'm angry that some influential people will turn this tragedy toward their agendas. I'm wrestling with the Gospel for Sunday, the story of Jesus in Gerasa, and his encounter with a man possessed by a legion of evil spirits. Jesus wasn't afraid. I must admit I'm finding it hard not to be afraid for neighbours and friends who are LGBTQ+. And Muslims. And not just in the United States. People who I hope are no more than opportunists and egotists have already suggested Toronto's Pride Parade as a target for a terrorist act.

Today I read these words, written by the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz. I worked with Fred addressing interfaith concerns in Halifax when he was Bishop of Nova Scotia and PEI. "Let us be gentle and then let us be bold." Beautiful and powerful words.



Spiritual Foundation

Summer Reading: Grounded

If you grew up in a Presbyterian congregation and are old enough to remember the little beige book with the shiny pages, share a memory in the Comments section below this post. If you don't share the experience or the memory, that's OK. Read on! One of the first questions of the Primary Catechism was "Where is God?" The answer: "God is everywhere." As a little kid I found that both awesome and awful. It meant I was never alone. It also meant I could never hide! God could see everything I did, and hear every word I said! As an adult I have learned that God is still everywhere and I am never alone. God is far less concerned with my faults and errors than I am! And God is far more willing to forgive me than I am.

Somewhere along the way, though, most of us were taught to think of our relationship with God as vertical. We're down here. God is up there. If we want to know where God really is, we have too look up, beyond the earth we still believe God created. Some of us may even have been told we had to avoid or ignore as much of the world as possible, to keep ourselves as clean as we could, so we would have a chance to escape to go up there and be with God.

If we always and only imagine our connection with God as vertical it's easy to believe we're lost in this world. But what if we can come close to God down here, where we live and move and have our being? Can we imagine a horizontal relationship with the God who is, as some of us were taught, everywhere?

I have a short summer reading list. It's nice, for the first summer in many years, not to have text books on that list. One book I look forward to finishing is Grounded by Diana Butler Bass. I recommend it for summer reading. Bass weaves together her expert observations on current trends in religion and spirituality in North America, and a creation-based Christian theology that is both new and very old. For those of us who are more inclined to look around than up to locate God, or at least to look around first, this makes sense. But Bass has a way of provoking us to take a fresh look at what we already believe.

I invite you to join with me in reading Grounded. It will be great preparation for a conversation I'm looking forward to in September. On Wednesday, September 21, we'll begin a six-session discussion, based on Grounded, Come at Noon or 7:30 p.m., or / and participate in an online conversation.

Grounded is available for purchase in book stores or online, in print and as an e-book. It's a great summer read for the cottage, backyard, or balcony.



Light and Darkness

On Victoria Day I went to visit the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre next door, and the park in the middle. It was a beautiful day. I got off the bus just before midday. The sun was high in the sky and the whole complex shone bright and hot. I was glad to step inside the cool museum, with its controlled, diffused light and air conditioning. I had heard both buildings were beautiful. The museum is anything but ornate inside. The architecture is deceptively simple. The galleries are small. The collections are what people come to see. They are housed and displayed in peaceful spaces that allow for prolonged attention. One visit isn’t enough.

A lot of westerners say “Islamic Art” is an oxymoron. After all, it seems we only hear about the Islamist extremists who are bent on burning beauty away from the earth. “Islamic Science” isn’t a phrase most in the west have ever heard. Long before Christians drove Muslims out of Europe and tried to do the same in Palestine Islamic artists, architects, astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians were at work. Their work was centuries ahead of the Europeans. A few wise and brave western scholars, like Copernicus sought out translations of Arabic texts and quietly worked with them to lay the foundations of what we call science. The permanent collection at the Aga Khan Museum reveals an earlier foundation few of us learned about in school. It also represents later developments in a part of the world people in our part of the world said was in the dark. After all, we in the west had an “Enlightenment” 400 years ago! Weren’t we lucky?

Visiting the Ismaili Centre provides a dramatic contrast to the important history lesson offered by the museum. The centre is all about today, and the way Ismaili Muslims bring faith and tradition, rich with ancient symbols, into the present. The building is a masterpiece itself, a celebration of design and decoration, the craft of artisans, Muslim and non-Muslim. Every detail has meaning, old and new. The contemporary take on the traditional dome over the prayer room is magnificent. The whole building is filled with light.

While there I remembered that I once heard a Muslim scholar respond to a western Christian’s question about history. When did Muslims experience the enlightenment? He replied, “We didn’t need one.” Not the elevation of reason to divine status and the reduction of religion to a harmless intellectual exercise that set the course of western civilization.

I’ve heard Christians and Hindus in India say the same thing.

If we go looking for darkness, we’ll surely find it. Yes, there are elements in every society that cast darkness, not light, and fight to draw others into deep shadows. Too often, though, we only see the darkness when we look toward people who are different from us. Too often, we forget how many people look on us in the same way.

If we’re confident in what we believe, and can honestly say we live what we believe with integrity, we will have no reason to cast people who aren’t like us into darkness. We’ll have no reason to be afraid of others. We’ll find the grace to join with others in the light, and work with them for the good of all. We all need enlightenment, real enlightenment. None of us will ever find it on our own.

I’m a better Christian when I see the light that others live in. Not the shadows my certainties cast over them.

As I left the Ismaili Centre and headed out onto the sidewalk I looked across Wynford Drive at another centre of religion. It was a pretty stark contrast. Shouldn’t it be all lit up, too, as a witness to the light we Presbyterians live in?

I’d love to meet Pope Francis some day. Maybe invite the Aga Khan to join in the conversation. I know a really beautiful place to meet in. The food’s great there, too.


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Does what we believe really matter?

Last Sunday, as I read the Preamble to the service for the ordination of elders I saw some puzzled looks in the congregation. We don't often hear the recitation of our doctrine of ministry, or even the names of our statements of Presbyterian belief. They are the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation (1954), and Living Faith (1998 - the Little Green Book). Presbyterians believe what we believe matters.

Churches in the Reformed tradition are called "Confessional" or "Confessing" churches. When I begin to explain that, most people think it means we have a Prayer of Confession in every service, and we may be a little too concerned about sin and forgiveness. We don't "go to Confession", do we? It means we believe we must always be ready to confess, or profess our faith. We believe there are times that call for us to make clear statements of how we interpret the Bible, and how we understand our purpose in the world. The mid-seventeenth century was such a time in our church history. From that time we have documents that came from an assembly at Westminster, in London. The English didn't adopt those documents, but the Scots did.

In 1954, the memory of World War II was still fresh and fear of the spread of Communist totalitarianism was a powerful force. Our Presbyterian Church in Canada adopted a statement about the relationship of the church to the state, and the Christian's duty as citizen.

In the mid-eighties Living Faith was written for use in worship and in study groups. The document became so popular in the PCC that it was elevated to the same status as the older confessions in 1998.

There are parts of the Westminster Confession that we just don't accept today. It'll curl your hair, if not your toes. It's an historic document, very much of its time. We're Presbyterians. We don't throw old things away. There is still much in that document to remind us, for one thing, that God is God and we are not. The Declaration is obviously a document of the 1950s, but still a serious work of theology. It deserves to be read. Parts of Living Faith are now dated. It reflects concerns about the world as it was in the 1980s. On the whole, it's a sound summary of orthodox Christian belief, without the heavy-handedness of the Westminster. The latter comes from an age when Christians were addicted to Certainty. Living Faith reflects a slightly more open approach to things.

These words are often missed when the Preamble is read out at a minister's induction, or when elders are ordained: ...and such doctrine as the church, in obedience to Scripture and under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, may yet confess in the church's continuing function of reformulating the faith.

"Continuing function of reformulating the faith..." We believe that's part of the church's work in this world. What we believe is important. It's important to know what we believe, and to be able to tell others what we believe. It's just as important to question what we say we believe and to be open to the possibility we may be wrong. The Puritans influenced the assembly at Westminster, yet it was also a Puritan who said, I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.” John Robinson sent his friends to the Americas on the Mayflower with these words. He stayed behind to challenge the terrible certainties of his brethren. He wasn't charmed by the Presbyterians, either. He said we stopped thinking when John Calvin died! I like to think we've learned from Robinson and others, that there is more light than we can see, and more truth about God than we have yet discovered.

For each time and purpose it is important to be able to say what we believe and demonstrate our convictions in our lives. To be a Confessing church isn't just to say "This we believe, and here we stand". We can't stop there. The next words must be, "And this is what we do because we believe". It was a Confession of Faith that provided Reformed Christians in Europe a platform for their resistance to Hitler. When we act on our convictions we put them to the test. That testing often leads us to "reformulate" our beliefs. We won't see new light if we just sit still and take no risks.

Maybe the time has come for a new statement of faith for Presbyterians to celebrate, ponder over, question, and push against. It takes awhile to write one. The work that finally led to Living Faith began in the 1940s! Sometimes the journey is the biggest share in the reward. As the great Canadian Presbyterian theologian Walter Bryden put it, when the Westminster was only 300 years old, a Confession of Faith becomes dated the moment it's printed. (My paraphrase.)

What we believe matters, in the same way having footings beneath a foundation matters. We lay sound footings so we can build great things upon them. We can forget they're there at times, but we can never take them for granted.

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I'm grateful to everyone who has asked me about preparations for Maggie's wedding on Saturday. Before and after the ceremony I will be chauffeur and concierge for some family and friends. I know I'll spend the day before in my familiar role as Laurence the Camel: hauling, loading, unloading, hauling. I'm an expert at packing and unpacking our SUV. As FOTB I've dutifully paid for a share of wedding expenses. I expected and welcome all of this.

What I wasn't ready for was the emotional roller coaster ride that goes with being FOTB. As a pastor I've dealt with the emotions of many Mothers of the Bride. A MOTB can be a real handful in the days before and after a wedding, while a bride can be as cool as a cucumber. FOTBs are usually in the background, feeling things just as deeply as their wives, but mostly silent. At least until the toasts at the reception begin.

Today I saw a young father having a lunch date with his daughter, who looked to be between three and four. I saw Maggie and me and, to be honest, that's how I still see us a lot of the time. I figure that's how I'll see us on Saturday. She will always be my girl. I know not every father-daughter relationship is good and loving. I also know fathers and daughters can share a bond that may stretch but can never be broken. When she's three or four you are like a god to her. When she looks at you with love at any age, you feel like a god. When you have just one child, and that child is a daughter, it's especially hard to let her grow, and let her go to follow a path she has chosen. 

So, to everyone who has asked me how I'm doing, I have to say I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm proud, I'm afraid, and I'm already tired. I have two FOTB speeches prepared. One ends with me telling the groom he's the luckiest man in the world and we're delighted to welcome him into the family. The other speech is a warning. If he ever disappoints my girl, I'll hunt him down and... I'll probably go with the first speech. I think he already gets the second message.

Parenting offers us a unique opportunity to experience what it's like for God to love us unconditionally. If we think of the old image of the church as the Bride of Christ, then maybe we can imagine God riding the FOTB (or POTB) roller coaster of joy, sorrow, pride, frustration, rage when others hurt us, anger when we choose to hurt ourselves, forgiveness that flows like tears, beyond control. God knows the mixture of pain and satisfaction that come from letting us grow, and letting us go.

Like a FOTB God watches, mostly silent, but loving truly, madly, deeply. Seeing us only at our best. Taking us by the hand only when and for as long as necessary. But never stepping beyond our reach.

Maybe this post would be more appropriate in the week before Father's Day than now, with Mother's Day approaching. I didn't choose the wedding date.

I'll do my best to be a good FOTB. Play chauffeur, concierge, Laurence the Camel, and Rock of Gibraltar. For my little girl, who is in so many ways much smarter than I am, and in so many ways more mature than her mother and I were when we got married.



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So... What's Different (Part Two)

I've been asked what it's like to return to congregational ministry after six years of full-time teaching. Do I note any changes in the church?

One thing I can say is that denominations mean less to church members than they did a few years ago. Maybe I should say "even less", because interest and commitment have been declining for quite some time. Where congregations are growing it's because people are choosing the local church first. If they stick around, they may find out about the denomination.

I don't mean loyal, life-long Presbyterians like me don't care if we're Presbyterian any more. In many congregations attention has shifted away from the structures and concerns of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the life and needs of the local church. This is reflected in what I've called the Church Positive: congregations that are engaging in mission and partnerships that make real differences in their neighbourhoods; local churches that are working for change in the world by refugee sponsorship, and supporting PWS&D and other NGOs, often at the expense of contributions to denominational budgets. It also appears in the Church Negative: congregations focused on survival, resistant to change, closed to insight from outside, and often angry at their denominations. My extensive experience in the United Church of Canada over the past six years tells me this isn't unique to our PCC.

People in the pews and at Session tables have always asked what the denomination, or "Head Office" does for their church. Well, let's see. The Presbyterian Church in Canada, through Presbyterians Sharing...

  • supports education for ministers and other church leaders.
  • supports overseas partners in mission, keeps us informed about that work, and holds us to our commitment to be a church that is engaged with the world.
  • supports new ministries in Canada, including new congregations, and missions that are finding new ways to do their work.
  • enables very small and remote congregations and ministries across the country to continue in worship and fellowship.
  • provides educational, administrative, and problem-solving resources to congregations.

That's not a complete list, but it covers some very important things that are, or can be, of benefit to any congregation.

I'm not convinced we need all the structures that have been in place for so many years to keep on offering that support to local congregations. I'm also aware that many congregations seek and find support from sources outside the PCC. They also aim their support for mission in many directions, local and international. Some do this in the expansive spirit of the Church Positive. Some in the oppositional way of the Church Negative. Either way, they don't rely on the denomination as much as they might have a few years ago.

I'm encouraged when local congregations cooperate with nearby churches, across denominational lines. The practical truth is that Glenview has more in common with nearby congregations in North Toronto than with other churches in East Toronto Presbytery. (The same could be said about Armour Heights and Calvin, and their neighbourhoods.) I'm discouraged when congregations feel obliged to "keep it Presbyterian" and miss opportunities to share with their neighbours and friends.

On the national level I believe the time came a good while ago for denominations to share administration of all essential services. Canadian churches already cooperate in aid and development programs and avoid duplication of effort. In the end, the cost saving might not be great, but the witness to church and world would be positive, encouraging congregations to follow suit.

So... Do I care less about my denomination than I did six years ago? I am a Presbyterian by birth, baptism, nurture, education, and adult choice. If there's such a thing as a Presbyterian temperament, that's who I am. I believe our Presbyterian / Reformed witness is an essential voice in the chorus of the worldwide church. I also believe that to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical, and to be open to reforming and rebuilding the church's structures to follow God's mission in every age. I see our collective ability to carry on the PCC's business-as-usual declining, fast. I don't grieve that as I did a few years ago, when I first saw it. After all, God always has something new in store for us.

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So... What's Different? (Part One)

A longer post this week. I don't have to prepare sermons for Sunday.

Glenview folk, former students, and ministry colleagues have been asking me how it feels to be back in congregational ministry after a time out. I tell them I spent the last six years in a different kind of ministry.

It's true that I left full time congregational leadership in 2008. For awhile I was in part time interim ministry while teaching part time. Then, in 2009, I went into teaching full time. I wasn't leading a congregation. But, through my students, I had fingers and toes in up to 35 pastoral charges across Canada, and in Bermuda, at a time. (Only one was Presbyterian.)

I haven't been away from ministry, but I now see the impact of change on pastoral leadership first hand. I'm also looking back to the 26 years I was in congregational ministry before I went back to school. Some of the changes I'm reflecting on aren't recent, but I see them now in fresh light.

When I was ordained we could still safely assume the truth of those words from "Field of Dreams": "If you build it they will come." Church members put a twist on it: "We built it and they have been coming ever since." Then it became, "We have built it. Why aren't they coming?" Then we tried new programs, activated new volunteers, added staff, put up new signs. We really believed that, if we built it, they would come. Sometimes they did. For awhile.

After awhile programs aren't new anymore. The needs they once met aren't as urgent as they once were. Volunteers burn out, or take healthy breaks. Staff come and go. People stop noticing signs after awhile. Unless they have experienced deeply personal engagement with the community that initially drew them in by creating something for them, those still new to the church will move on.

The decline in membership and income all established congregations have been contending with for more than the last six years has finally reached levels that no one can deny. In 2008 a lot of churches were still hiding from the truth. Many were saying, "Let's build again so they will come." Or come back. Some did. For awhile.

We can also no longer deny demographic reality. Canada has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the global north. The core demographic of Canadian Protestant churches is ageing even faster. It's also declining, slowly but steadily, as a percentage of the total population. This has more to do with birth rate than immigration.

Churches that want to grow still dream of attracting new members who are already enough like current members to fit in. In the 1980's, when churches set goals and adopted growth strategies this was called "the principle of homogeneity". We were told to go out and introduce ourselves to people who were longing to meet folks just like them. If these new friends had specific needs, we were told to build something to meet those needs. Like a church nursery. A parenting group. A counseling centre. And they would come! Sometimes they did. For awhile.

In 2016 I see just as many established Protestant churches as there were in 2008 and almost as many as there were in the 1980s. Those churches are now competing for a shrinking population.

English-speaking, middle income families with children have even more options than they did just a few years ago. They will choose when and where to invest their time, their money, their children, and themselves. Those who choose to invest in the church are looking for something more than a structure or program that sort of does what somebody else in the neighbourhood also does. Congregations with money to fund structures and programs at a consistent level of excellence can still grow. They will come. For awhile.

My experience and study tell me that it's relationships that draw in and hold onto the folks every congregation says it most wants to attract. And that's relationships, plural. They expect to know and trust the leaders, but they know leaders come and go. Sustained relationships with members of the congregation are the real reason people of all ages come and stay in community.

Every study I've read or supervised over the last six years tells me that lots of people who used to go to church, or never went to church, still seek meaning, purpose, and community. Some come to church looking for that. They don't always find what they seek. They look carefully. Yes, they can be quick to make judgments, based on first impressions. This is especially true of those young adults every established congregation longs to have among them.

What are they looking for? A community that has a clear purpose and honestly tries to live up to it. People who walk their talk. They may seek opportunities to join in doing something that makes a difference in the world. They may watch for signs that being part of the congregation makes a difference in its members' lives. At the very least they want to feel free to be as involved in church life as they choose to be.

If the congregation has many programs, do they really help people? If there are excellent facilities, are they used well and thoroughly, in ways that help people? Is worship engaging, approachable for everyone? This question is really important to a lot of young adults: If I come back and bring a friend who is obviously different from me, and most of the congregation, will we both be just as welcome as I was last Sunday?

I used to share a widespread belief-- perhaps a prejudice-- that only one way of worshiping, one kind of music, one brand of theology could feed growth in a church. I still hear a lot of that in churches. I've learned that churches of all liturgical, musical, and theological bents can grow. Or decline, fast. What draws people in and keeps them coming back is evidence that worshiping, singing, and believing together is meaningful. It doesn't seem to matter if a congregation is open and eclectic or closely framed by one tradition. What matters is the positive difference a congregation and its members make in the world because they pray, celebrate, and learn together.

Tony Robinson is one of my favourite speakers and writers on congregational life. In a recent article for The Christian Century magazine he uses marketing vocabulary to make a distinction between being market driven and product driven. He says the church has often been market driven, focused on getting a share of a chosen demographic (e.g. young parents, "Millenials"). Congregations can't ignore any segment of the population, or their contexts. Robinson says it's more important for congregations to be clear about what they offer the world. "What is the particular understanding of the gospel and of the church that we believe in? What are we passionate about? How do we give form to our vision of the gospel and the church in the ways that we gather, worship, pray, teach, sing, and serve? What is our 'product,' and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?"

A few years ago I would have been offended to be asked what my church's product was. Robinson chooses his words to make a point, and to ask us an important question. What is our product, and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?

That begs another question. If we know what we are offering, are we willing to tell others about it?




The Church Negative and the Church Positive

Last week the Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church in Canada met in Crieff, Ontario. The Assembly Council is a group of people from across the church, some more representing various governing bodies within the denomination's structure, and staff. They do a lot of the business of the denomination between annual General Assemblies. I read the summary of the meeting and noted this report from the Moderator, Karen Horst.

Throughout her visits across Canada, she has witnessed the numerical decline of a number of our congregations. She stressed that we need to be honest about this issue. The other issue she has experienced was a surprising degree of prejudice from members in our pews towards refugees, Indigenous people, as well as on human sexuality.

She said these issues were alarming, and I suppose they are. But I'm afraid they're not surprising. I wonder if they go together. I suspect they do, in many places.

Sunday's first reading is Revelation 7:9-17, a wild and woolly vision of saints assembled in heaven to receive their reward for endurance through hard times. The celebration is led by a flock of angels and elders who fall down on their faces around the heavenly throne. The traditional reading says it's a vision of the church as it is on earth and as it shall be in heaven: The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant. All intended to encourage the church as it was, 1900 years ago, in a time of increasing persecution within the Roman Empire.

Those terms, Militant and Triumphant, survived. Even though we don't use the words much these days, they have shaped the way a lot of people still think about the church and its mission. For them, the church in the here and now is all about hard work and struggle. It's also about settling for less than the best we can be. After all, things will be perfect in heaven, or in some sweet by and by when God takes over. The saints will be rewarded for their endurance when they get to heaven. So holding on and keeping on before God finally moves us on is our bounden duty. The Church Militant will defend itself against all change. Against all comers, if necessary!

The term "Militant" used to mean totally focused on mission, and ready to give everything if that's what it takes to do God's will. The vision in Revelation 7 is of a "multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." It's pretty clear the work of the church on earth, the Church Militant, is to reach out and welcome in all comers. To be passionate about growing, and embracing all kinds of people and all the change they bring. All for Christ's sake, not ours.

The purpose of every vision the Bible gives us of what is to come is to inspire us, here and now, to live that vision and its values. Blogger Glennon Melton asks, "What kind of heaven do you believe in? Are you WAITING for it or WORKING for it?"

So, just what did the Moderator see and hear in her travels this year? I think she met a lot of tired, frustrated, even angry people who are dedicated to being the Church Militant; just like they think their grandparents were, and just like they were told past generations of saints and martyrs were. They're waiting for heaven but their vision of heaven has very little to do with life on earth.

I'm not convinced the Militant / Triumphant dichotomy is helpful to us today. I'm wrestling with the commentators as I prepare for Sunday's sermons. I do think we can distinguish between the Church Positive and the Church Negative. The Church Positive is motivated by the possibility that we can live and be in mission today in ways that reflect the wonderful vision Jesus cast of the Kingdom of God. We can live the crazy hope of a heaven where God "will guide [us and all] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear." That will give us strength and courage to do hope-filled things like feed people who might not eat on a cold winter Sunday night, sponsor Syrian refugees, join with neighbours to clean a ravine so all can enjoy public space, work to bring clean water to First Nations Communities, weep with the people of Attawapiskat, and use the power and influence we have as citizens to work so that their tears will be wiped away.

I'm sorry the Moderator encountered so many examples of the Church Negative in her travels. I'm not surprised, but it still hurts to read her report. But her words call us, at Glenview, to ask what kind of church we are and want to be. Are we still waiting for something to dawn on us? Or are we working for it?